The world after September 11

This is the text of the perspectives resolution adopted by the United States International Socialist Organization (ISO) convention in January.

1) No one can deny that September 11 marked an important turning point in world politics. It is too early to tell how fundamental a turning point it will prove. But there is no denying that politics changed—and not for the better. Militarily, US imperialism, in specific, and militarism generally have been boosted. Politically, ruling parties and governments around the world have seen their stock rise massively. Ideologically, right-wing ideas of racism, xenophobia, patriotism, Western cultural superiority and hostility to dissent have made huge comebacks in popular consciousness.

2) The US won a big victory in Afghanistan. Within the space of two months, it dragooned most of the world's governments into its "coalition against terrorism", routed the Taliban government and smashed much of the al Qaeda apparatus. It won a military victory with US firepower, and an ideological victory with scenes of Afghanis celebrating the Taliban's defeat. As the war winds down into a "mop up" and "nation-building" operation, the US will face problems in shaping the situation completely to its will. But it will take away a clear sense of victory, with massive popular support behind it. A belligerent US ruling class emerged cocky from the war in Afghanistan. Even before the US/UN brokered protectorate government had been agreed to, US military and political leaders started talking about the "next target" in the "war on terrorism".

3) The US and the Bush administration will now want to press the advantage. They have already demanded that Iraq readmit weapons inspectors (withdrawn at US request in 1998 before the US-led "Operation Desert Fox") and demanded that North Korea open its nuclear sites to US inspection. Bush openly threatens countries that they will face the same fate as Afghanistan if they don't fall in line behind the US's war on terrorism.

4) The US war on terrorism has, temporarily at least, reshuffled the geopolitical map of the world. These developments are the most notable:

The US has gained the foothold in central Asia (with basing rights in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) that it has sought for more than a decade since the end of the Soviet Union. The US hopes it can parlay this position not only for pipeline routes to the West, but to insert itself into the oil politics of a region which will become more significant as demand for oil from rapidly developing Asian powers like India and China increases.

Russia has asserted its influence in Afghanistan and its usefulness to the West. By dumping its oil on the world market, it has helped keep oil prices low (and OPEC on the run). Moreover, as the key sponsor of the Northern Alliance, it has dealt a blow to the Islamist oppositions that challenge its rule in the central Asian republics. It has received a green light to crush the Chechen uprising.

Japan and Germany used the crisis to revise their Allied-imposed post-second world war constitutions, which barred their militaries from venturing outside the realm of "homeland defence".

China's desire to assert itself as a regional power has been temporarily checked. Whatever it gained from identifying itself with the war on terrorism, other developments like US troops in central Asia, US cosying up to India (China's main rival on the Asian continent) and a Japanese military more able to project itself can't be good news for China.

In all, the priorities of the US government have been advanced in world politics. Despite US "coalition-building" rhetoric and reliance on the UN to administer post-Taliban Afghanistan, a more unilateralist, militaristic US posture has emerged from phase one of the war on terrorism. Bush received all he wanted from a stampeded US Congress—an eleven per cent increase in military spending, vast increases in power for the cia, and further commitment to "national missile defence". The US will press its priorities all around the world—including in Latin America and the Pacific, where few links with al Qaeda exist.

5) The Gulf War in 1991 set the stage for a great expansion of US economic power throughout the world in the last decade. The US hopes to use the war on terrorism to further the same ends. How the US plays its victory in phase one of the war on terrorism will help to determine the staying power of the geopolitical shifts described above. Whether it decides to press its advantage in the Caspian region alongside Russia or as a competitor to it will determine whether the Bush-Putin honeymoon lasts. The US "coalition against terrorism" may fracture when it moves on to the next "anti-terrorism" target, especially if that target (as all indications suggest) is Iraq. Already, Bush is hearing preemptive complaints from even his closest allies (including Britain's Tony Blair) warning against expanding the war to Iraq. Despite this, no one should doubt the administration's determination to wage a "go it alone" war against Iraq if it decides that US interests in the Gulf region would be served. The administration will have no hesitation about manufacturing any justification it can devise to launch such a war. Even though a war against Iraq will likely have majority support in the US, larger numbers of people will oppose it than oppose the current war because it's more difficult to link Iraq to the September 11 events.

6) Bush, [Defence Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, [Attorney General John] Ashcroft and Co. would like to recreate the mood of the Cold War—both abroad and domestically. With the worst attacks on civil liberties in decades and an emboldened right trying to police dissent in the media and on campuses, the current climate has a certain feel of the McCarthy era. The pathetic surrender of congressional Democrats in the face of the Bush/Ashcroft offensive has contributed to the administration's feeling that it can get whatever it wants. But today is not 1947. In the 1950s, ideological support for Cold War conservatism took hold among large numbers of ordinary Americans because US capitalism was in the midst of the long postwar boom. A dominant Democratic Party liberalism could deliver "imperialist reform"—support for the Cold War overseas and a liberal reform policy at home that helped to marginalise radical politics while radicals were being victimised. With a strong liberalism rooted in the trade unions (which organised one-third of the work force in the 1940s and 1950s), Cold War liberalism had a social base. Today, those props don't exist. With the world economy in recession and all of the institutions of Cold War liberalism (from the unions to the Democratic Party) having weaker roots, Bush and Ashcroft have a weaker foundation on which to build their right-wing agenda.

7) The US economy, the engine of the world economy throughout the 1990s, has been in a now officially acknowledged recession since March 2001. In late October, the World Trade Organisation estimated worldwide trade in 2001 would increase only two per cent over 2000—down from a twelve per cent increase from 1999 to 2000. Asian economies tied heavily to exports to the US's high-tech market, like Singapore and Taiwan, contracted by 2.4 per cent and 5.6 per cent, respectively, in the third quarter alone. Japan remained mired in its near decade-long slump. German economists estimate the German economy will barely grow at all in 2001.

US stock and bond markets seem to be expecting an economic bounce back in early 2002. They rallied in November, as it appeared the US was winning the war in Afghanistan. But the markets rallied last spring on government predictions of a late-2001 recovery—a recovery that didn't emerge. As the Economist explained:

The biggest reason for thinking that consensus forecasts for the American economy are too complacent is that the root cause of this recession is not terrorism, but rather the economic and financial imbalances that built up during the late 1990s. Firms overinvested and overborrowed on the back of inflated expectations about future profits. Households borrowed heavily too, believing that share prices would rise forever. These excesses will take time to unwind.

The Economist concludes, "Even with a mild recession in America, then, this could still turn out to be the most severe world recession since the 1930s."

As the recession spreads and deepens through 2002, the issues it raises will compete with the war on terrorism for Bush's attention. Bush et. al. will do all they can to keep the public focused on the war and threats to security, but it will be difficult to push concerns about the economy aside. Already, Republican pollsters are warning the GOP [Republicans] about the importance of the economy as an issue in the 2002 mid-term elections. According to some internal Republican polls, the economy/jobs/recession has started to draw even with terrorism/war/security in the list of public concerns, according to the Washington politics newsletter Hotline. Given the unprecedented nature of the September 11 attacks, it would be wrong to draw a one-to-one parallel between the rapid collapse of Bush Sr.'s administration in the face of the 1990-91 recession and Bush Jr.'s current posture. But Republicans are worried enough about the precedent to urge the administration to develop a policy besides the war on terrorism. And with the US budget falling into deficit through at least 2004, the fight over priorities between the war on terrorism and domestic needs (guns v. butter) will only intensify.

8) The recession will certainly provide more room for voices of criticism and opposition to emerge against the Bush administration. Its current high ratings, based on its perceived success in the war on terrorism, depend on the "loaning" of support to Bush from people who were most inclined to oppose his policies prior to September 11—women, racial minorities, workers, young people. For large numbers of these people—even those who support the war—Bush is still an illegitimate president, which the media Florida ballot study confirmed (at least for those willing to read beyond the pro-Bush headlines!). With the exception of the surprise election of Michael Bloomberg as New York mayor (attributable more to Mark Green's Gore-like incompetence than to Bloomberg's brilliance) and the Florida-like loss of the San Francisco municipal utility district referenda, the 2001 elections didn't go the GOP's way. As before September 11, Bush's biggest props remain Democrats and liberal interest group leaders too timid to oppose him.

9) The war has polarised politics on every front. Many people who are opposed to the war, or unsure of what to think about the war—or its other manifestations, such as the extreme attacks on civil liberties—feel isolated. Having a political analysis and confidently stating it is more important than ever. The ISO can play a real role in helping to galvanise the oppositional sentiment that exists and to give people confidence to organise and to speak up. Before September 11, we were swimming with the stream in a leftward moving milieu. The spirit of the global justice movement was to "work together" and not to spend too much time discussing or debating "our differences". This reflected the rawness and immaturity of a new and vibrant movement. But the war confronted the movement, and other radicals, with hard questions: Should we accede to calls not to demonstrate "in respect for the dead"? Should we demand "justice" for the victims of September 11? Can we oppose the war, or should we be for a more limited response? Should we ignore the war and continue to campaign around other issues?

All of these questions and more confronted the New Left. And the global justice movement, in particular, had few answers. For a movement that believed that states had become archaic in the face of mobile multinational capital, the return of the state with a vengeance—in the form of the US military—found the movement wanting. Unfortunately, too many global justice campaigners did not step up to the challenge, leaving that movement in disarray. Likewise, many forces in the anti-war movement, committed to "peace" and "justice", found that they couldn't sustain their opposition to a war that cloaked itself in a justification of seeking justice for the victims of the September 11 attacks—and the "humanitarianism" of feeding starving Afghan people and liberating Afghan women. The anti-imperialist US left was eroded throughout the 1990s, as many were thrown into confusion and critical support for US "humanitarian" military missions in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. For this reason, the US "peace" movement that started so quickly in September had, by November, largely collapsed. As it declined, anarchist and liberal elements began attacking socialists for being involved in the movement in the first place.

10) These descriptions of the global justice and anti-war movements should emphasise the importance of socialist politics. A socialist analysis that connects directly the two sides of imperialism—the economic and the military—met the political challenge, whereas the global justice movement did not. Socialist politics can provide an analysis of imperialism, Washington's war aims, and a sense of historical perspective that can steel people with the confidence they need to stand up to pro-war propaganda and liberal collapse before it. Instead of swimming with the stream, we are swimming against the tide. But we should take this as an opportunity to really organise and recruit around the importance of socialist politics and organisation. By standing out as a pole of attraction with a clear understanding and clear proposals about what to do, we can help to inspire confidence in others around US. Events like teach-ins, study groups, upcoming ISR [International Socialist Review] anti-war forums and emphasizing our ideas and literature (SW [Socialist Worker], the ISR, books, etc.) can help to galvanise the anti-imperialist wing of the movement, while helping to convince those within it of the need to build a revolutionary organisation. With the anti-war activists we have worked with, we should not only recruit them to the ISO, but we should work with them to reconstitute anti-war groups in the winter and spring, when the US may be laying the groundwork for another war with Iraq or some other country.

11) The war and the issues of class will be the cutting edge over the next year. We need to figure out ways to bring the issues of class to the fore. It may be around something as seemingly mundane as a demand for full pay for reservists called up for duty (a campaign some comrades in unionised workplaces in New York have initiated) or a strike against an employer using the excuse of September 11 to attack the work force (like the Boston hotels strike set to start on December 1, 2001). Over the next year, as government cuts for unemployment benefits and schools coincide with huge increases for the Pentagon, slogans like "money for jobs, not for war" will take on an agitational, rather than simply propagandistic character.

Our consistency in linking the issues of the war to working-class issues will distinguish a socialist approach to building an anti-war opposition from a pacifist, anarchist or liberal approach. It is also the exact opposite of the "social patriotic" approach best represented in Katrina van den Huevel and Joel Rogers' silly "What's Left? A New Life for Progressivism" (Los Angeles Times, November 25, 2001), which contends the left can take advantage of the war on terrorism because "War's mobilization of the populace against a shared threat also heightens social solidarity, while underscoring the need for government and other social institutions that transcend or replace the market". Our approach hinges not on pointing out our solidarity with the bosses, but by exposing their hypocrisy in advancing their agenda under the guise of patriotism.

12) We face a completely different political climate than the one we had planned for in early September. Still, this is no cause for despair. We have to remember some key points. First, the thousands who became radicalised in the last few years around issues such as global justice or the death penalty have not been transformed into right-wingers. Their movements may have been knocked off course, and many of their leaders disoriented. But they are not now suddenly devotees of George W. Bush. Opinion polls show that young people—the core of these movements—are about twice as likely to oppose the war as are people in the rest of society. Although these forces are a minority today, they represent about as big a group as support for the Nader campaign represented last year. And this minority will be tougher and more political because it has had to swim against the stream, unlike the loose Nader periphery that flourished mainly in liberal enclaves. The thousands who turned out for this year's protest against the School of the Americas are a good example of this development. Second, the social inequalities that drove the movements of the late 1990s are only likely to worsen in a recessionary climate. Even if the economy begins to rebound next year, unemployment will continue to increase. The recession will deal some devastating defeats to unions that were unprepared to take advantage even of the boom years. But it will also make other groups of workers fight harder. The lifetime welfare limit passed by Clinton is taking effect now in states around the country—just as the effects of the recession take hold. The US will now experience the full impact of the shredded safety net.

These developments will heighten the issue of class inequality in all major issues. It will be harder to sell corporate giveaways like the September airline bailout package as necessary concessions to "national unity". All of the issues of class inequality, the American injustice system and others that moved people before September 11 will reemerge in a sharper way. It's up to us to build an organisation that can rise to the tasks a new and more serious opposition will demand.